Anthony Reginato

Report calls for dental overhaul

THE Brotherhood of St Laurence says a new report has found millions of people are financially locked out of Australia's dental health system.

The report, End the Decay: The cost of poor dental health and what should be done about it, analysed existing data to estimate the disease burden of untreated dental conditions and the resulting economic burden.

It found the cost of dental care is undermining the capacity of Australians to gain and keep employment and costs the economy more than $1.3 billion a year.

Authored by Professor Jeff Richardson from Monash University and Bronwyn Richardson from Campbell Research and Consulting, the report found hospital admissions from dental conditions are the largest category of preventable acute hospital admissions, costing the health system $223 million each year.

It claims at least one million work days and at least 600,000 school days are lost each year because of poor dental health, costing the economy at least $660 million in lost productivity.

Children in the lowest socioeconomic areas had 70 per cent more decay in their teeth than children in the highest socioeconomic areas and adults on the lowest incomes were almost 60 times more likely to have no teeth than those on the highest incomes.

While the prevalence of people without teeth has fallen to 0.3 per cent in the top 25 per cent of incomes, 17.3 per cent of adults in the lowest 25 per cent of incomes had no natural teeth and Indigenous people were twice as likely to have untreated decay in comparison to non-indigenous people.

Nearly a quarter of adults report feeling self conscious or embarrassed because of oral health problems.

Mr Tony Nicholson, the Executive Director of the Brotherhood of St Laurence, said that the costs of poor dental health were being borne by those least able to afford them.

"This report is valuable in terms of putting numbers on the economic costs and the disease burden, but in our line of work we see the direct impact on people's lives," Mr Nicholson said.

"Poor dental health can cause pain that impairs eating and speaking and it can disfigure people's faces, eroding their confidence, undermining their employability and excluding them from mainstream economic and social life."

"Poor and missing teeth are a sign of poverty, and of social exclusion. In the next Budget, the Government has a historic opportunity to start fixing the dental health system.

"We urge the Government, the Greens and the Independents to consider the very high costs that are already being imposed on those least able to pay and to start developing a dental plan that works for these groups."

Findings from the research report suggest that the costs of increasing spending on dental health would be substantially offset by productivity gains and a reduction in the costs of healthcare from preventable oral health conditions.

The Brotherhood is calling for a new approach to dental care, including improved affordability and access to dental care for disadvantaged people as a matter of urgency and the development of a plan and a timetable for the introduction of a universal dental scheme.

Report recommendations:

  • Introduce measures that attract private dentists to do some work in the public system.
  • Expand the numbers of oral health practitioners (dental health practitioners other than dentists) who can add to the dental health workforce.
  • Prioritise access to preventive dental health services to stop oral health deteriorating and to minimise the development of other diseases that are linked to poor oral health, including cardiovascular disease and stroke.

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